Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘fiction technique’

I’ve finally reached the half-way point in Nadine Gordimer’s fifth novel, A Guest of Honour. As I mentioned before, this novel takes a broader scope than her previous four. It isn’t so much about the individual perspective and experience of apartheid but more about the legacy of that system on an entire culture – both sides, those who had power and those who were never allowed the same responsibility or privilege.


The novel isn’t set in South Africa, but in a fictional neighboring state which has just gained its independence. A Guest of Honour asks two preoccupying questions – first, what are the elements of colonialism most difficult for the no-longer-colonized nation to move beyond and second, what role can (or, more importantly, should) the liberal white individual play in the dismantling and subsequent reconstruction of a culture he/she participated in along the way. For a novel written in 1970, Gordimer is exceptionally prescient as well as compassionate and I’m eager to work my way through to the end and experience either the solution she might offer or a deeper investigation of these important questions.


But what I really wanted to talk about today was style. In terms of writing technique, I get a lot from Gordimer. She’s a fantastic study and I just wanted to point out some of the things I’ve been noting throughout this book.


First, and I’ve mentioned this before when talking about Gordimer, is her remarkable facility with description. Her use of symbolic language is never heavy or extended – just a word or two, but she somehow manages to pick just the right word or image. A few examples:


The road to the village would be blocked, the dog ran over the soft fields breathing like a dragon…the kernel of the house was warm with oil-fired heating…


The spiders came out from behind the pictures and flattened like starfish against the walls.


Every now and then the trumpet blurted like a shout of obese laughter.


There were bats at the fruit, the most silent and unobtrusive of creatures, torn-off rags of darkness itself.


Second, she has unapologetic transitions. Simply effortless. In the example here, she moves her character from one side of town (his house) to another (his friend Hjalmar’s), to a completely different scene, as well as brings in another character, with a semi-colon and the word “yes”. It’s brilliant:


The trousers were a little short. He looked at himself in the damp-spotted mirror on the door of the wardrobe in his room. He had forgotten to buy a dress tie, after all; but Hjalmar would have one. Yes; and it was a beautiful tie, finely made of the best ribbed silk, with a Berlin label still on it. Emmanuelle laughed. “Nobody wears those butterflies anymore. Ras will lend you one of his.”


In her other novels, Gordimer already captures the flow of what I would call “party” conversation. Streams of sentences that don’t always connect, batted back and forth across whatever scene she’s got set up. In A Guest of Honour, which is heavily peppered with these kinds of busy scenes, she refines the technique. This novel features state dinners and policy discussions, dinner parties and after-hours political brainstorming. She gets the mood of these either heated or weary dialogues just perfect. I won’t quote them because they can go on for a long time but suffice it to say Gordimer can be useful to look at if you want to work on the musicality, the nonsensical nature, and the flow of written dialogue.


Finally, the third person omniscient narrative style she favors lends itself well to this kind of socially/morally investigative novel because she can telescope between her characters’ observations and more general insights. Here is one such example, taken from a scene when the main character Bray meets another white woman at a state dinner:


She did not know who he was; the curious fact was that people like him and her would not have met in colonial times, irrevocably separated by his view of the Africans as the owners of their own country and her view of them as a race of servants with good masters. They were brought together now by the blacks themselves, the very source of the contention, his presence the natural result of long friendship, hers the equally natural result of that accommodating will to survive – economic survival, of course; her flesh and blood had never been endangered – that made her accept an African government as she had had to accept the presence of ants in the sugar and the obligation to take malaria prophylactics.


This particular example is a bit longer than most, but I still think she carries it off because she’s able to sculpt our understanding of both characters with this kind of confident narrator. It’s such a smooth omniscient.


A Guest of Honour is a heavy book, rich with political maneuvering, complicated social philosophy and historical information. It’s a slow read. But at the same time, the sheer delight of turning the page to come across yet another of Gordimer’s stunning images or insightful descriptions significantly lightens the experience. Definitely one of those books I’m eager to keep reading but that I don’t really want to finish.



Writing negative criticism about books is something I dislike. Instead, I tend to avoid writing about the books I don’t wholeheartedly admire. This isn’t because I think I’m not entitled to my opinion. People have vastly different reactions to fiction and writing styles and everyone has their own personal aesthetic preferences so sometimes this is all it boils down to. But I still tend to omit a lot of my negative criticism unless I can find very specific reasons why I didn’t like something. I love picking fiction apart, discovering why I reacted positively to something, why something else put me off, where the tension comes from, how the dialogue works and on and on and on. In that vein, I’ve spent the last few days thinking about why I didn’t love my most recent re-read of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams.


Animal Dreams (1990) was Kingsolver’s second novel and there is a lot to admire, in particular the sections in third person narration about Homer. The writing in these shorter sections is really powerful and the emotional structure intricate – Homer’s shifts in lucidity give the narrator the opportunity for both honesty and denial and those two moods generate a lot of tension in relation to the main story. He also muddles the past and the present in such a way that scenes spill into one another; that fluid movement provides the basis for a large chunk of the story’s revelation.


The main story is a first person narration by Codi, Homer’s daughter, who has recently returned to her childhood hometown, for several reasons – her father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, her sister has recently gone south to work in war-torn Nicaragua and Codi is newly separated from her longtime lover. She is unmoored. She also harbors an immense distrust for the city she feels somewhat forced to return to.


There are moments in Codi’s story that get it just right, where her voice and the images she chooses to illuminate her thoughts or feelings strike all the right notes:


Hallie had never left me before. It was always the other way around, since I’m three years older and have had to do things first. She would just be catching up when I’d go again, swimming farther out into life because I still hadn’t found a rock to stand on.




Carlo was a rolling stone: an emergency room doctor, which gave him a kind of freedom almost unknown to the profession. You can always find work if you’re willing to take up with the human body as soon as possible after one of life’s traumas has left off with it.


But there are other moments when I wished she’d let the reader do more of their own thinking. There was very often a sentence too much or a line of dialogue that could have been left unsaid. I’m being super nitpicky but when you’re writing I think it’s important to pay attention to this sort of thing. Below is one of the passages I’m talking about:


We hadn’t been together since the Holiday Inn lounge, two years ago, but from Doc Homer you didn’t expect hugs and kisses. (He was legendary in this regard.) Hallie and I used to play a game we called “orphans” when we were with him in a crowd. “Who in this room is our true father or mother? Which is the one grownup here that loves us?” We’d watch for a sign – a solicitous glance, a compliment, someone who might even kneel down and straighten Hallie’s hair ribbon, which we’d tugged out of alignment as bait. That person would never be Doc Homer. (Proving to us, of course, that he wasn’t the one grownup there that loved us. )


I put parantheses around the sentences I think we could remove. They end up taking power away from what is ultimately a very compelling paragraph. This happens again and again in Animal Dreams. It’s something I see often in first person narration. Like the author wants to make their point over and over again, just in case the reader missed it. This certainly doesn’t destroy a book, but it can really slow it down.


Toward the end of the novel this excess writing happens a lot and this is where I think I started getting really frustrated. If you’ve decided to give your novel a happy ending I still think it’s important to resist the urge to tie everything up in a neat little package. The reunion scene between Codi and Loyd (her love interest in the novel) is just screaming daytime drama. But it didn’t have to be that way.


Shortly the train began to move again, very slowly, the speed of a living creature. You could still run and catch it. Loyd and Roger kept walking toward me without seeing me. (Standing there watching him, knowing what he didn’t, I had so much power and none at all.) I was on the outside, in a different dimension. I’d lived there always.

Then he stopped dead, just for a second. I’ll remember that. (The train moved and Roger moved but Loyd stood still.

He caught up to me in an instant, with a twinkle in his eye and his bag slung over his shoulder like a ready traveler.

“Thanks for the ride,” I said.

He put one arm around my neck and gave me the kind of kiss no fool would walk away from twice. )




This is the end of a chapter and I think where I’ve suggested ending the scene infers everything about the rest, without giving us the cheesy line of dialogue and that awful twinkle in Loyd’s eye. Her lines about the train and the hint about running and catching it are just wonderful, they show us Codi’s ambivalence about her decision to stay without hitting us over the head with the idea. Those lines are subtle. Those other last lines are not.


I’m sure some people might disagree with me, since, as I’ve said, we are talking about aesthetic preferences. I think Kingsolver is an accomplished writer and I’m eager to read her most recent novels like Prodigal Summer and The Poisonwood Bible (which I read maybe eight years ago but without such an intense look at the writing) to see if this is characteristic of her style in general or was it something she did in the beginning. I can’t help thinking of it as a beginning writer thing – something we all do when we’re still learning how to trust our instincts and the story itself. Any thoughts?


This week I’ve been entertaining a house guest and haven’t had much time for reading, writing or blogging. But I chose a book somewhat at random from my shelf the other night and tucked into Donald Barthelme’s 1986 novel Paradise. Turns out it was a great book to read during an otherwise busy week: disjointed, pithy, somewhat vulgar, intriguing and moderately experimental. I consider it experimental because it’s written almost completely in dialogue.

I didn’t realize that Barthelme actually wrote novels, but he did. Four in fact. All of which are purported to be extended versions of his fragmentary short story style. I am only a little familiar with Barthelme’s short stories but those I do know tend to focus on one scene and build it up with heaps and heaps of very specific detail instead of constructing a more traditional story arc. Also, I think I would consider him tragic-comic. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say he uses a kind of busy absurdity to highlight emptiness.

True to form, Paradise reads like a long short story. Structurally, the novel is broken up into 60 or 70 3-page chapters. The chapters alternate between existential Q&A sessions between Simon, the main character, and his doctor, and conversations (with a minimum of narrative direction) between Simon and his three female roommates. There are a few one or two-page chapters consisting of narrative summation.

Where this book interested me was in its economy. How it conveyed everything the reader needed to know about Simon through his words alone. But also, how that same dialogue depicted the novel’s other characters. I struggle with creating dialogue that isn’t wholly focused on my main character – I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want my character to reveal about his/herself through dialogue but then I end up so focused I create one-sided dialogue where my lesser characters speak in prompts for the most important character. Paradise is a great example of how effective messy dialogue can be. Not only does Simon reveal himself through his Q&A with the doctor, but the doctor begins to take on a life of his own as well:

Q: Did they ever go to Fizz?
A: I believe they went there quite often.
Q: What went on there?
A: It was a meat rack, a heterosexual meat rack. From what they’ve told me.
Q: So they picked up guys there…
A: They did, I suppose. They may have been just playing, just exercising…
Q: How did that make you feel?
A: I didn’t like it.
Q: Sometimes I think I should be a shrink.
A: Why aren’t you?
Q: It’s not medicine
A: I imagine them thinking, talking to each other…
Q: What did they say to each other?
A: I don’t know, of course. I imagine they were careful, thoughtful. Direct.
Q: My wife was the world’s champion at leaving things lying around. I spent much of my marriage picking up after her…

This last line goes on and on before the doctor picks up their original conversation with a new question. The doctor participates in their exchange, giving his own interpretation of the events Simon is telling him about. It creates a nice layering effect and also forces Simon to re-explain or even defend himself from time to time.

The voices of the three women living with Simon are less differentiated. They act and speak as a unit, mostly as a unit in direct confrontation with Simon. Dore, Veronica and Anne are young, curious, sexy, fragile, reckless, eager, angry…all the extremes. They function as a group of young women still trying to figure out what they want out of life against Simon who is on hold, terrorized really, from what he thinks/realizes/accepts his life has become. He’s resigned, cynical, depressed and numb. The tension between those two perspectives gets explored as they talk circles around each other.

“I don’t want to think we’re fucked. I really don’t want to think that.”
“We could go out and marry some more people.”
“The last thing I have in mind.”
“Yeah it does sound a little retrograde.”
Anne is in a retrospective mood.
“I won the Colorado Miss Breck,” she says. “I didn’t win the National, though.”
“Can’t win them all,” Simon says.
“It was very exciting. This stuff is very exciting when you’re a kid, people making a fuss over you. It becomes less exciting. I wanted to be a doctor.”
“Everybody wants to be a doctor. Veronica’s old man the child-beater wanted to be a doctor.”
“I know,” she says. “Helping people. Your existence is justified.”
Simon looks at his khakis; they’re a bit on the filthy side. Buy another pair. “You could still do that,” he says. “Medical school.”
“Do you want to get married again?”
“Hadn’t thought about it.”
“Probably somebody’d marry you.”
“Like who?”
“Some dumb woman. A commodity with which the world is amply supplied. Me, for example.”
“That would be pretty dumb. You need a young soldier.”
“You telling me what I need?”
“Trying to.”
“I feel affectionate toward you, Simon.”
“I feel the same thing. Not a good idea.”
“Who says?”
“Aetna Life and Casualty.”

Dialogue is superficial, in the sense that it lies directly on the surface of a book. It’s the most direct contact the reader has with any one character – it’s even more direct than the first person POV because it doesn’t pass through any filters before delivery. It was interesting then, to read a book that functioned almost entirely at this level. On the one hand I missed the more elaborate narrative interpretation I’ve grown accustomed to in most contemporary novels but at the same time I enjoyed experiencing the characters on their own terms, letting the weight of their words sink in without any distraction.

Narrator, narrator, narrator. What a powerful creature you are.

On Tuesday evening, I started reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and then I finished it up on Wednesday afternoon. It’s a rare treat to focus on a book in what feels like essentially one sitting. This kind of intensive reading exaggerates the feeling I get of having completely exited my own reality and gone visiting another. And the smooth, unwavering quality of Never Let Me Go’s narrator Karen kept me firmly within the confines of the story.

I don’t want to go into too many details about the actual story of Never Let Me Go because I think it would spoil the fun of reading the book for those who don’t know anything about it. Suffice it to say the novel presents an alternate version of contemporary reality where certain scientific decisions require a new kind of social segregation. I’ve heard the novel labeled science fiction and I suppose that might be true, but I think it’s really beside the point. The point for me is the writing, combined with the novel’s careful exploration of Ishiguro’s idea.

I want to focus on the narrator. I was dubious of Ishiguro’s handling of Karen at first. I wanted her to have a different kind of voice – less explanatory, less hesitant, less flat. I felt like I wasn’t in good hands and that the way she told the story needed to be cleaned up or edited or smoothed somehow. I was worried it might be a case of a very successful writer not being held to certain standards anymore, which is something I do think happens as editors become less certain whether they can criticize or offer changes. And I held tight to that criticism for nearly a third of the book until it slowly dawned on me that Ishiguro was doing this on purpose and for a very good reason.

From the very beginning, Karen’s overall tone is one of jaded resignation. And it was driving me insane. I couldn’t detect the level of emotion I thought she should have. Nor could I understand why she felt compelled to do so much over-explaining. Until the details of Ishiguro’s frightening world started coming into clearer focus and then it all made sense. Especially when we remember that Karen begins her story at the end, when she’s eight months from leaving her job and taking on her “real” role in society, when what she has to tell us has already happened. It’s only when we get to the end, that it makes sense why she has the tone of voice she has. She’s worse than resigned. That’s the whole point.

But the point of letting this kind of narrator tell her story (something I think most writing classes or instructors would tell you to avoid like the plague because in essence she is lifeless) is where I think Ishiguro made a clever decision. Her tone of voice is specifically calculated for who she is. This sounds silly and maybe what I’m saying won’t make sense unless you’ve read the book. But she isn’t just telling her story – she IS the story. And her voice, her resignation, her understanding of herself at the end, becomes the greatest piece of evidence of the novel’s tragedy.

And Ishiguro gives us everything we really need to know about her right on page one. Pretty damn clever.

One of the articles in the most recent issue of The Writer’s Chronicle asserts that contemporary fiction has lost its appreciation of the omniscient narrator. The idea got me thinking about whether or not this was true. I won’t go into a critique of the article but I think the author actually ended up contradicting herself a little – at first saying the omniscient was lost, no longer taught in writing programs and then intimating that most readers actually confuse the omniscient with a 3rd person limited. She then went on to give examples of numerous contemporary novels which use an omniscient point of view to great success. So, I think we can safely say that an appreciation of the omniscient point-of-view isn’t lost at all. We might not be pegging it correctly each time, but it is still being explored in contemporary fiction.

Nevertheless, I think the author was right to bring our attention to what a skillful use of the omniscient narrator can achieve. One of my favorite examples of this point-of-view in action comes from Part I – Collies – of Julia Glass’s 2002 novel, Three Junes.

“Collies” is actually a novella, the first installment of the triptych that forms Three Junes and it is one of those unique pieces of fiction that manages to get many things right – an interesting POV, careful use of metaphor, no cop outs on exploring difficult emotional situations. It’s a story about the contradictory emotions of anger and relief, freedom and regret inherent in the process of grieving for a loved one. It is a softly-told story, recounted by a discerning narrator with an immense amount of compassion for the novel’s characters.

Structurally, it is also interesting, as the forward action is limited to a short holiday trip in Greece, a week in the life of a grieving widower, while the past tense back story covers nearly a lifetime. It’s very neatly done and worth looking at for anyone struggling with how to appropriately place back story. Glass plays the two time periods off one another quite expertly, giving just enough of the past to make the present meaningful and vice versa. Writers can get so caught up in the pasts of their characters, inventing scenes and events for the pure delight of discovery. Knowing how to trim that to the essentials takes hard work and a merciless finger on the delete button.

But I wanted to talk about the omniscient POV. At first glance, it seems that “Collies” is written in the 3rd person limited – we are allowed access into the consciousness of our grieving widower, Paul – which is true, and we do get frequent and in-depth access. But actually, the front story taking place in Greece has an omniscient narrator which dips into other people’s minds from time to time as well as moves far enough back to grant the reader a nicely broad view of the scene and its animated trimmings.

This is a completely different tactic from what I talked about in my last post in regards to Don Delillo’s The Body Artist (also a book about grieving). With the front story of “Collies” the reader is given a lot of space, freedom to watch and wait and see what Paul will do with himself, to get to know him slowly, as it were. That isn’t to say the novel doesn’t get the reader involved with Paul and his grieving. It’s just a very different process. In many respects, Glass’s omniscient narrator presents the story of Paul’s grief through a prism – with each insight adding another layer of depth to our understanding of his sorrow. The Body Artist gives us one intensely concentrated perspective and holds us fast.

The back story of “Collies”, however, is written with a close 3rd person limited. This slight narrative shift between the present story and the back story does a marvelous job of rendering the past scenes with a greater degree of intensity than the front story scenes. Which I think mirrors Paul’s state of mind quite nicely. He’s in Greece to sort through his grief, part of that sorting is a sifting of his memories and they don’t belong to anyone else. The difference between the two narrative perspectives is so subtle, so smooth that without careful reading you don’t really see it. And that’s good. The reader shouldn’t really notice it – they should only feel the difference in the impact of the story.